The Word Among Us

October 2014 Issue

St. Teresa of Ávila

The Little Nun Who Could . . . and Did

St. Teresa of Ávila: The Little Nun Who Could . . . and Did

It isn’t often that a person’s birthday is celebrated for an entire year. But then, Teresa of Ávila was no ordinary person! Not only was she one of the giants of Spanish literature; she was a religious reformer, a mystic, and a pioneer in the spiritual life.

A small but powerful woman, Teresa had an outsized effect on the Church in her day, and her influence has only grown over time. Along with Catherine of Siena, she was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970—the first two women ever to receive this honor. Her writings are still in demand and have been translated into dozens of languages. And her spiritual advice has helped countless people come to a deeper experience of Christ’s love and presence.

For these reasons and many more, the Church will launch a yearlong celebration of the five-hundredth birthday of Teresa of Ávila on October 15 of this year. So let’s take a look at this great woman’s life, her times, and her teachings.

A Scrappy, Socially Conscious Beginning. Spain was just entering its Golden Age when Teresa was born in March 1515. The royal marriage between Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon had taken place in 1469, uniting the Spanish kingdoms under a single regime. Together, these monarchs expelled the last of the Moorish rulers in 1492. From that point on, they envisioned a thoroughly Christian, intensely religious kingdom established on gospel principles, but narrowly focused on “purging” the land of all Muslim and Jewish religious practices.

In the very same year, Columbus demonstrated that it was possible to sail to the Americas and return safely with astonishingly rich treasures. So within just a few years, Spain had become rich and powerful, the envy of the rest of Europe.

More than ever, Spanish society had become driven by a cutthroat scramble for rank and status among the noble families. Teresa’s grandfather, for instance, had moved from Toledo to Ávila to hide the stigma of Jewish ancestry and to conceal the fact that he had just recently entered the nobility. This left Teresa’s family to live with a dark secret that never quite let them rest easy in their new social standing. Even as a young girl, she had to cope with a subtle aura of inferiority and a need to assert her worthiness at every turn. In her later years, this determined, scrappy personality served her well as she fought for her religious reforms and her seemingly unorthodox methods of prayer.

From Would-Be Martyr to Nun. Considering Spain’s intense religiosity and her own family’s desire to appear as “Catholic” as possible, it’s no surprise that Teresa grew up with a very active conscience and a strong sense of belonging to the Church. When she was only seven years old, she and her brother decided that they wanted to be martyrs and set off for the land of the Moors to shed their blood. Fortunately, they didn’t get very far before their uncle intercepted the young zealots and brought them back home. Then came a phase when they played at being hermits, cut off from the imperfect world and devoted to constant prayer and solitude.

When Teresa was about fourteen, her mother died, bringing the girl’s carefree childhood to an end. A short period of schooling with Augustinian nuns ignited her interest in religious life, but her delicate health cut short any further plans. It wasn’t until she was in her early twenties that she decided to enter the Carmelite convent of the Incarnation in her hometown.

Incarnation Convent was very large, with too many nuns for the finances available. Although it was by no means an immoral place, the quality of prayer and observance was uneven, and many of the women there had no inkling of a religious vocation at all. In several cases, unmarried women from noble families were unceremoniously dumped into the community along with a very large donation to the convent. Once there, they continued to live at leisure with their own servants, cooks, and social circle. It was hardly a good setting for sincere prayer and contemplation.

In spite of these shortcomings, Teresa spent the next twenty years as a fairly observant nun. She studied and embraced the Carmelite ideals of silence and solitude, as well as the earlier hermits’ objective of “reflecting day and night on the Law of the Lord.” And while her health continued to complicate her tranquility, other members of the community found her to be steady and reliable.

A Spiritual Earthquake. Everything changed for Teresa in 1557, when she had an overwhelming experience of the sufferings of Jesus for her. A particularly vivid statue of the wounded Christ moved her to repent of her previous halfhearted life. Amid a flood of tears, she was struck by the loneliness and abandonment Jesus must have felt during his passion. Seeing Jesus like this moved her to offer him her personal companionship—and he accepted the offer. Teresa experienced a deep and lasting union with God that manifested itself in the form of a steady, conversational prayer punctuated by dramatic experiences of mystical ecstasy.

This new relationship with Jesus became the impetus behind Teresa’s work in reforming the Carmelite order. It was the central focus of all her writings and spiritual counseling. And it was her consolation when she felt abandoned, misunderstood, or rejected. What she experienced was so dramatic that she knew she couldn’t keep it to herself. She also knew it wasn’t meant just for her. She was convinced that everyone could know Jesus as deeply as she had come to know him. Everyone could have the same conversational prayer that she had learned.

Following this spiritual earthquake, Teresa began to think creatively about how to improve life in her convent. Keeping an eye on the fundamental elements of the Carmelite Rule, she began to discuss new and more fruitful ways to live it out. She began to design an experimental community that would be small enough to promote loving relationships among the sisters. Aware of the toxic effects of titles and status, she suggested that family names give way to religious names and that every sister embrace simplicity in dress and footwear. Their daily activities would be disciplined and simple, focusing primarily on prayer. Above all, the community needed to be a happy place if the sisters were getting it right.

With the permission of the Carmelite provincial, Teresa opened the small convent of St. Joseph in 1562. She had to fine-tune details of her new house, but in general she was pleased that she had a setting that would nurture the same sort of prayer that she was experiencing. Many previous reforms had failed because they concentrated on details of observance rather than the underlying spirituality. By contrast, Teresa succeeded because she insisted that prayer should trump all other considerations. And it worked! Other nuns asked to join her happy community, and enthusiastic new vocations presented themselves at her door—so many, in fact, that Teresa never lacked candidates for the new communities that she set about establishing.

In 1567, the Carmelite prior general, Giovanni Battista Rossi, visited Ávila and very much liked what he saw. He told Teresa that she could found any number of convents, as long as she could find sisters to live in them. Because of the obvious need for chaplains and spiritual directors, he also authorized her to establish communities of friars to follow her reformed guidelines. Over the next fifteen years, Teresa founded sixteen reformed convents for women and several others for men.

Fruitful Tension. There is a saying that the most dangerous time for any human institution is when it tries to reform itself. In the case of the Spanish Carmelites, there was a natural reluctance on the part of some to commit themselves to a stricter way of life. But this dynamic was greatly complicated by well-meaning outsiders who had their own ideas about how to restructure the existing communities, even when they didn’t entirely understand the Carmelite way of life. These outsiders included King Philip II, bishops, papal nuncios, and three popes. As a consequence, much of the excellence of Teresa’s renewal became soured by human pettiness, pride, and political infighting.

In the end, Teresa saw that it was no longer possible for two distinct approaches to the Carmelite Rule to live together. The bickering and hard feelings had made any real harmony unlikely. She had no other option than to group her communities into a separate province, which became known as the Discalced (Shoeless) Carmelites.

After a particularly bruising dispute in 1575, Rossi and the General Council advised Teresa to suspend her reforming travels and stay in one convent for a while. This wasn’t an easy choice for someone who had been so active, but Teresa used this time to compose some of her finest writings in a blaze of creativity. She had already completed an autobiography and The Way of Perfection, a sort of textbook on prayer. She now crafted her masterpiece, Interior Castle, as well as her Book of Foundations, which described the details of her reforming work.

A Worthy Woman. After about four years of quiet, Teresa resumed her travels. She felt herself beginning to slow down, but she refused to stop. Finally, exhaustion and illness caught up with her, and she died late in the night on October 4, 1582. Ironically, Pope Gregory XIII decreed his calendar reform to begin on that day, so the next day became October 15, which we now honor as Teresa’s feast day. Even in death, this worthy woman was ahead of her time!

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